Gertrue Bell in 1900 (© Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University, all rights reserved)

“A wonderful person — not very like a woman, you know?”

So speaks T. E. Lawrence of his friend Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) at the start of Letters from Baghdad, a new documentary that charts Bell’s life traversing the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century. Lawrence is undoubtedly the more famous of the pair, branded in Orientalist film history by Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia, headdress and all. But in the first few minutes of Letters, as forgotten headlines flash across the screen — “English Woman Real Power in Mesopotamia”; “Explored in the Middle East Like a Man”; “A Genuine Woman Explorer” — it quickly becomes clear that Bell’s influence on the region may have outweighed that of her overly confident counterpart.

Gertrude Bell in 1921 (© Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University, all rights reserved)

How to chart the life of an Englishwoman — an explorer, spy, mountaineer, translator, and archaeologist — who’s been all but written out of colonial Middle Eastern history? Luckily for Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, the film’s directors, we can add “prolific letter writer” and “early photography enthusiast” to the list of Bell’s identities — she left behind some 1,600 letters and over 7,000 photographs. With such a wealth of material, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum came to the conclusion that the best person to tell Bell’s story was Bell herself, along with some input from her contemporaries.

Voiced by the mellifluous Tilda Swinton (who also served as an executive producer on the film), Bell speaks to us early on through her diary entries and family correspondence, illustrated with school and family photographs. Born in 1868, she’s described by Krayenbühl and Oelbaum as “part proper Victorian and part modern woman,” one who found her feet at Oxford University, where she became the first woman to achieve Highest Honors in Modern History. She began spending time in London and took up smoking and riding the underground, a rebel in her parents’ eyes. “Gertrude had gone on such an orgy of independence,” her half-sister wrote, years after her death.

The “orgy” continued in the early 1890s, when Bell made her first trip to the Middle East, organized with family friends who were well established in Britain’s foreign diplomatic society. Over the next few years, she undertook the Grand Tour, traveling to Tehran, Jerusalem, Damascus, Samarra, and Constantinople; she wrote of being overwhelmed with appreciation for the “living east.” That sort of language soon disappears, replaced by the mature voice of someone who’s eager to learn the customs of the societies she’s encountering. She realized early on that the best way to do this was to maintain her identity (and wardrobe) as an Englishwoman and remain conscious of her role as visitor: “The European will be wiser if he doesn’t ape their habits; he will meet with far greater respect if he adheres strictly to his own.”

Bell would ultimately crisscross the Ottoman Empire numerous times, returning to sites in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. She was constantly on the move — in 1914, she became the first woman to chart a course through Arabia. She spent time on archaeological digs, insisting that antiquities remain where they were found, met with Bedouin sheikhs to understand tribal loyalties and schisms, and was eventually made the first female intelligence officer in the British Military, after World War I began. She went on to become fluent in Persian and a number of Arabic dialects and write five books, one a translation of 14th-century Persian poetry.

Gertrude Bell (far left) among the delegates of the Mespot Commission at the Cairo Conference in Cairo, Egypt, c. 1921. The group was set up by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to discuss the future of Arab nations. (image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS, © Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University, all rights reserved)

The information she gathered on the ground became invaluable to the British government — it was Bell who helped map the borders of modern-day Iraq. She held an intriguing position as a military officer, caught between her personal relationships with Arab leaders and misogynistic British generals, and wrote often of her anxieties over her role in the colonial project. She could easily be seen as another cog in the British colonial machine, carving up the Middle East for military gains and oil, but her diaries and letters show that she was as earnest in her appetite for learning as she was determined to maintain her independence. She put her faith in the locals, rather than the governing foreign powers, and tried continually to tip the scales in their favor.

Part of the film’s success lies in its juxtaposition of other people’s accounts of Bell alongside her own writing. Krayenbühl and Oelbaum depict her contemporaries onscreen via actors who offer testimonials to her character. We see Lawrence (Eric Loscheider), with his air of snobbery, alongside our protagonist’s elderly stepmother, Lady Florence Bell (Helen Ryan). Her friend, novelist Vita Sackville-West (Rachel Stirling), chimes in with tales from their visits together, while Major-General Sir Percy Cox (Andrew Havill) chats about treating Bell as one of the boys. While these acted interviews could have come across as contrived, the sheer intimacy of the testimonies, taken from personal accounts or correspondence, means they truly add to the portrait of Bell, not least by placing her well within the alpha-male environment in which she thrived.

Film still from Letters from Baghdad (courtesy Lobster Films)

Shot on 16mm film, these directed scenes fit seamlessly between archival footage, sourced by Krayenbühl and Oelbaum, that tracks the Middle Eastern landscape from the late 1890s through the mid-1920s. Watching the film feels almost like sifting through an archive yourself: The old footage, still photographs, and newspaper clippings are refreshingly displayed without contemporary commentary; the filmmakers have left that to us.

“The real difficulty under which we labour here is that we don’t know exactly what we intend to do in this country,” Bell wrote in 1920, around the time she was helping establish the political structure of an independent Iraq. “We rushed into this business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. Can you persuade people to take your side, when you’re not sure in the end whether you’ll be there to take theirs?”

Film still from Letters from Baghdad (courtesy Imperial War Museum)

It’s incredible how precisely and damningly Bell’s insight into Western “diplomatic” affairs translates to the present day, illuminating generational resonances that pervade the film by its conclusion. She died in Baghdad in 1926, after overdosing on sleeping pills (it’s unclear whether this was intentional); she had served as the director of the newly established Iraq Museum for just one year. In 2003, the collection she worked so hard to preserve in its native land was ransacked during the American invasion.

Ironically, Lawrence — whose famed exploits were informed by Bell’s work but who failed to learn from her cultural sensitivity — may have summed up her legacy best, just after her death: “That Iraq State is a fine monument, even if only lasts a few more years. She was born too gifted, perhaps. By the way, do read her letters. They are splendid.”

Letters from Baghdad is now playing at select theaters in the UK and will premiere in New York City on June 2.

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Mary Pelletier

Mary Pelletier is an American writer and art historian specializing in early Middle Eastern photography. She is based in Jerusalem.